Elizabethan Culture in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Elizabethan Era began on November 17, 1558, the day Elizabeth Tudor ascended the throne of England and became queen. This period in history lasted roughly forty-five years, until her death on March 24, 1603. (Alchin) During the last couple decades of Elizabeth’s life, William Shakespeare began to gain popularity in the theater world of England.
In 1599, Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar was performed for the first time in the Globe Theater, London’s famed auditorium. Shakespeare wrote about thirty-seven plays during his lifetime, and many of them reflected the time period he grew up in. Since it is thought that Shakespeare was born in April of 1564, a big portion of his childhood and young adult life took place during the Elizabethan Era, which influenced a number of his plays, including A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Alchin) The superstitious beliefs, the treatment of women, and Titania’s entourage are all connections from the play to the culture and history of the Elizabethan Era.
Superstition was a very important part of Elizabethan daily life, and Shakespeare incorporated many of these beliefs into his play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. One of these beliefs was that fairies walked the earth, and that they were fallen angels that sided with the devil (Whitesides). According to superstition, these fairies only emerged at night to play tricks on the humans. While they were not entirely evil, these creatures were mischievous and therefore were often blamed for misfortunes that befell the innocent. Shakespeare included the basic ideas of this centuries old superstition in his play, but also added a twist to it. While fairies had always been feared by the humans, Shakespeare portrayed them as more good-natured than the stories always said they were. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies, especially Oberon, were trying to do the right thing, but they still managed to play a wicked trick on Helena, Hermia, Lysander and Demetrius. The legendary character Puck was also included in the play, and he was a well known sprite during the Elizabethan Era. It is unknown whether the story of Puck emerged from Scandinavia, Germany or Ireland, but it spread throughout Europe no matter where the story originated. There are different names for Puck in old English, old Norse, Swedish, Danish, German, Irish, Latvian, Lithuanian and Welsh, which shows just how widespread this superstition was. The old stories described Puck as a shapeshifter that came out at night to cause harm and mischief to the innocent. In the Irish variation of Puck, he is often depicted with an ass’ head. This connects to A Midsummer Night’s Dream because when Puck used his magic on Bottom, he gave him the head of an ass. The Welsh version of Puck, called Pwca, would lead travelers with a lantern and then blow it out when they were at the edge of a cliff. This also connects to the play because Puck lured Demetrius and Lysander into the same area as he did the travelers in the story, but instead of using a lantern, he used his voice to trick them. Basically, Puck is known as a mischievous sprite that loves to cause chaos. Throughout the play, Shakespeare shows this side of Puck, such as when he realized that he had made a mistake in delivering the love potion. This is shown in Act III Scene II of the play when Puck says,
Believe me, king of shadows, I mistook.
Did not you tell me I should know the man
By the Athenian garments he had on?
And so far blameless proves my enterprise,
That I have ‘nointed an Athenian’s eyes;
And so far am I glad it so did sort,
As this their jangling I esteem a sport. (Act III Scene II p. 42).
Puck finds the entire situation hilarious and is glad that he caused all that drama, for it was his entertainment. Another Elizabethan belief that Shakespeare incorporated into his play was changelings. During this time period, people who were different were often shunned, for it was believed that they had been touched by the devil. Parents of babies that were physically or mentally sick or had physical deformities, believed that their real child had been taken away from them, and was switched with a weak fairy child. To get the real child back, it was thought the changeling had to laugh or be tortured, which led to a lot of child abuse. Shakespeare put this belief in his play as well, but again, it was a little different than the classic story. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the changeling was the son of Titana’s friend who passed away. He was a human boy in the fairy world, the exact opposite from the superstition.
This time period in history, like many others, did not treat women the same as they did men. Societal rules for women during the Elizabethan Era were strictly drawn out. Men were expected to be the ones to support the family, and women were to be housewives and mothers. Women were also considered to be the weaker sex in both physical and mental terms. It was believed that females needed someone to look after them at all times, whether it was their husband, brother or father. This was included in the play when Helena pleaded for Demetrius to
Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
What worser place can I beg in your love, —
And yet a place of high respect with me, —
Than to be used as you use your dog? (Act II, Scene I, p. 18)
This quote shows that women were used to be treated like dogs by men during this period. Another thing Shakespeare incorporated into his play that connects to women’s rights was the fact that women were not allowed to work jobs such as doctors, lawyers, etcetera. While they were allowed to work domestic jobs such as maid or cook, they could not act in plays. This means that during the Elizabethan period, men played women’s roles in the theaters. Shakespeare mentions this in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he includes the lines,
Flute, you must take Thisbe on you.
What is Thisbe? A wandering knight?
It is the lady that Pyramus must love.
Nay, faith, let not me play a woman; I have a beard coming.
That’s all one: you shall play it in a mask, and you may speak as small as you will. (Act I, Scene II, p. 10)
Shakespeare included the Elizabethan beliefs and rules regarding women into his play, which shows his writing was significantly influenced by the era he grew up in and the rules that society followed.
The minor characters Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed do not seem to play a big role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, apart from aiding the queen of the fairies, but they do provide a lot of insight on Shakespeare and the daily life of Elizabethans. It’s not really what the helpful fairies do in the play that provides insight into the Elizabethan Era, it is more of the names Shakespeare chose for them. Peaseblossoms, spiderwebs, moths and mustard seeds played a pivotal role in the daily life of people during this time period, for they were used as household remedy ingredients. These remedies were not limited to the lower class citizens, everyone knew of these natural medicines and believed in their powers. Cobwebs have long been used for medicinal purposes, for they were used on cuts to help them heal faster and to stop the bleeding. This is shown when Bottom greets Cobweb by saying,
I shall desire you of more acquaintance, good Master
Cobweb: if I cut my finger, I shall make bold with you.
(Act III, Scene I, pg. 31)
Moths were also used during the Elizabethan Era as a form of medicine, they were boiled over a fire and combined with other remedies to ease illnesses. Mustard seeds as well as peaseblossoms were herbs used in medicinal remedies as well as for provoking lust. It was believed that during the night of the summer solstice, plants were given special powers, which they only got once a year. The fact that this play took place on that very night, and that two of the four maids of Titania were plants that would have gained powers on this magical night. The medicinal beliefs and superstitions of this time period was a big influence on the play, specifically in the creation of Cobweb, Mustardseed, Moth, and Peaseblossom.
A number of writers are influenced by their past experiences when they write, and Shakespeare was no different. About thirty-nine years of Shakespeare’s life took place during the Elizabethan Era, and since he only lived to the age of fifty-two, that was more than half of his entire life. The culture, customs, and traditions of this period seeped into a number of his plays and poems. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was no different, for Shakespeare included important part of Elizabethan culture into the play. There are many other connections to the time period to the play, but the ones that seemed to be of the most importance included the superstitions, the treatment of women, and the well-known household remedies of the Elizabethan period.
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